As one big, strong, physical team after another fall in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, does the copycat theory mean other teams will look towards icing a lineup based more on skill and speed than power and brawn?
If the NHL is a bunch of copycats like we’ve come to expect over the years, what will the league do now that bigger, meaner teams like Boston and St. Louis have fallen by the wayside and smaller, quicker teams like Montreal and the New York Rangers have advanced to the final four?
Follow suit and shift away from size and strength towards a more up-tempo, active game?
We shall see next season.
If the biggest and meanest team of all, the Los Angeles Kings, fall to the middle-of-the-pack size-wise Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal Friday, rest assured the league will take notice.
Montreal’s seven-game victory over Boston was a triumph for the small guy. For several seasons now, the Canadiens have made a concerted effort to get bigger, stronger and meaner, drafting the likes of Jarred Tinordi and Michael McCarron with high selections. But those players haven’t stepped in yet and Montreal remains pint-sized, icing a roster with a league-high nine forwards and four defensemen who stand 6-foot or smaller. The Habs are at the bottom of the NHL weight scale as well with just one regular (Alexei Emelin) weighing 220 pounds or more.
So in two playoff rounds, the league’s smallest team beat the league’s tallest team (Tampa Bay) and one of the league’s most physical teams. Boston has just five forwards and one defenseman 6-foot and under and four regulars weighing 220-plus pounds.
The Rangers rank mid-pack in terms of height and bottom third in terms of weight, but most of their difference-makers and support players stand 6-foot or under – Martin St-Louis, Brad Richards, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, Dominic Moore, Carl Hagelin, Derek Dorsett, Dan Carcillo, Anton Stralman.
In the playoffs, the Rangers beat the league’s most penalized team (Philadelphia) and a team (Pittsburgh) that ranked ahead of them in hits and penalty minutes.
The Chicago Blackhawks rank 30th in hits and 28th in penalty minutes. They’re close to league average in height and weight, but the emphasis with them the past several seasons has been on puck control. They beat the league’s second heaviest team (St. Louis) in the opening round and had a close battle with a small Minnesota team in the second round.
There are dozens of cases over the years of NHL teams having copied successful rivals – from the Broad Street Bullies to Steve Kasper shadowing Wayne Gretzky to New Jersey’s neutral-zone trap to bigger goalie equipment. Recent Stanley Cup titles by physical teams such as the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings have pushed the copycats towards being bigger, stronger and meaner.
Even the Canadiens are trying to move in that direction, only to discover they’re doing all right being on the small side.
When Brian Burke took over as acting GM of the Calgary Flames, he said his team needed to get bigger. We assume he means bigger and more skilled, but he just mentioned size. Of course, his 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks who won the Cup excelled at the physical game.
Maybe if the big, strong Kings (first in the league in hits, first in average weight and fifth in average height) win Game 7 against Anaheim Friday and go on to assert themselves successfully against Chicago and either the Rangers or Canadiens, we’ll continue to see other teams try to emulate their style.
But if one of the smaller, craftier teams win the final game of the season, we’ll be sure to see some copycats next season.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN